17 April 2006

Why the North didn't rise for the 1916 rebellion...

Belfast Telegraph

On the 90th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising, historian Richard Doherty examines why there was so little Northern involvement in the rebellion

17 April 2006

Some 15 years ago, when the Tower Museum was being established, Derry City Council attempted to find a local connection with the 1916 rebellion in Dublin. Their rationale was straightforward: since this was an iconic event in Ireland's history, they wished to show any local connection in the new museum.

In wishing to show that the city had been involved in the events of April 1916 in Dublin they were also trying to be even-handed in portraying the city's history. Local men had joined the Army in large numbers and were serving on the Western Front in 16th (Irish) and 36th (Ulster) Divisions. Many of them died in July and September 1916 during the battles of the Somme. It was felt that there ought to be a balance between their stories and that of the rebellion.

But the council faced a difficulty, one that would have faced any local museum in Northern Ireland, and many in the Republic. Had there been any local involvement in the rebellion at all?

The answer to that question was 'very little'.

While the leader of the Irish Volunteers, Eoin MacNeill, had strong northern connections - brought up in Glenarm, he was educated in Belfast - this did not translate into massive support for the volunteers.

Many Irish Volunteers were also members of the secret Irish Republican Brotherhood, the IRB, and it was IRB men who planned rebellion in Ulster but their plans came to naught. Indeed MacNeill issued a countermanding order when he learned of their intentions.

Those plans were thwarted also by other problems.

Ninety years ago, communications were much more difficult and those who plotted had to rely on the postal service. True, there were some telephones but not many while the telegraph service was not ideal for conspirators.

The principal action planned in Ulster centred on the Tyrone volunteers, principally men from Carrickmore, Donaghmore and Coalisland, who were to move to Belcoo in Fermanagh. There they would link up with Mayo men and await the signal to join in the rebellion.

But that signal never came. The first element of the planned rebellion was the landing of German arms in Kerry. This was the work of the former diplomat Sir Roger Casement whose family had strong connections with Ballymena.

However, the Royal Navy had broken Imperial German Navy ciphers and Casement's expedition was doomed.

He was arrested and the arms ship was intercepted. This might have brought an end to the plans for insurrection but certain individuals were determined that action would still be taken.

The original plan had been for the rebellion to begin under cover of manoeuvres planned for Dublin on Easter Sunday. (Today there is something surreal, even Pythonesque, in the image of armed marching men being accepted as 'normal' but this was the Ireland of almost a century ago.)

MacNeill cancelled the orders but two Ulstermen, Thomas Clarke and Seán MacDermott, were determined to go ahead and decided that the rebellion should begin on the Monday instead.

And so it was. But while Irish Volunteers and James Connolly's Irish Citizens Army marched through Dublin on the morning of April 24, the would-be rebels in Ulster waited in vain for the signal to send them into action.

That the signal never came was due largely to MacDermott's almost overwhelming obsession with secrecy.

The only Ulstermen to receive the order to take up arms were those from Carrickmore and south Tyrone and, even then, only on the Monday.

Heavy rain in the mountains of Tyrone that day seems to have dampened the spirits of the Carrickmore rebels whose planned rendezvous with Donaghmore and Coalisland men did not take place. The rebellion fizzled out.

Later in the week, police officers, supported by soldiers, raided the homes of Tyrone rebels and seized much of their ammunition.

This resolute Royal Irish Constabulary action wrote 'finis' to any further plans the Tyrone volunteers might have had.

Their leader was forced into hiding where he wrote a letter in which he blamed the Dublin leaders for the fiasco in Tyrone.

When the teacher, poet and rebel leader, Patrick Pearse, surrendered on April 29 the rebellion was at an end.

Some 450 people had died, over 2,500 were wounded and some £3m of damage had been inflicted on Dublin.

It was left to another poet, although displeased at being left out of the rebels' plans, to comment that 'a terrible beauty' had been born. But the north had escaped. No shots had been fired in the streets of Belfast, nor in the mountains of Tyrone.

As for Derry City Council, they finally discovered that one Derryman was among the dead in Dublin. But Charles Crockett, a Presbyterian and member of the congregation of Strand (Second Derry) Church, was no rebel.

Second-Lieutenant Crockett was a Royal Inniskilling Fusilier, in Dublin awaiting his move to France and his battalion. Ironically, he was killed by a bullet fired by another soldier.

A nationalist paper in his home city reported this but the circumstances were denied by the city's two unionist papers which insisted that he had fallen to the rebels.

And so it was that the rebellion remained almost exclusively a Dublin event.

Not until the executions of the leaders did it begin to exert a strong influence throughout the country. Then, truly, did Yeats' 'terrible beauty' begin.

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